The words you are searching are inside this book. To get more targeted content, please make full-text search by clicking here.
Discover the best professional documents and content resources in AnyFlip Document Base.
Published by krenar_abazi, 2019-11-12 16:37:58



Funny Pictures

Animation and Comedy
in Studio -Era HoIIy w o o d

Edited by

Daniel Goldmark and Charlie Keil


Berkele/ Los Angeles Londafi


Tex Avery's Prison House

of Animation, or Humor and
Boredom in Studio Cartoons

Scott Curtis

I've doneit all a hundred different waf' I'n burned out.I just don'I think

the stufJ is funny anymore.

There is a thin line between comedy and tedium. Anybody who has seen several
Tex Avery cartoons in a row is probably very familiar with this boundary. The
film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum oDce wrote, "To be sure, if you see as few as
half a dozen Averys at a stretch, you're likely to notice repetitions of gags and
certain recurring obsessions. . . and as many as a dozen together is an experi-
ence promoting migraines and nervous exhaustion."r The Avery scholar Floriane
Place-Verghnes agrees: "Seeing that these cartoons should be entertaining, it may
seem paradoxical to say that watching them for two hours (that is, the average
duration of a movie) is an extremely tiring exercise as far as the concentration of
the audience is concerned."z Even Joe Adamson, who otherwise praises Avery's
work, recognizes the dangers inherent in it: "But, Iike any freedom, the freedom
of the animation medium brings with it its own responsibility. The stylization,
the exaggeration, the free wheeling disregard for earthly realitl are all liberating
enough for a scene or two, but it's a thrill that can wear out pretty quickly, unless

itt given a steady guidance beyond the momentary."3 lt's a theme in the literature

about Averyt cartoons: even the best examples walk that razor's edge between
the sublime and the boring.

To be fair, a Tex Avery cartoon is not the only thing that walks that line.
Comedy itselfinches toward monotony. If Henri Bergson's theory oflaughter is
correct-that comedy depends on the invocation ofthe mechanical then there


is something in the very nature of comedy that is circular and, hence, evokes v€ry same cartoons. Taken individually, somc cartoons sing with sparkle and
the specter of boredom.a Comic routines that depend on repetitive gags or the energy, while others might tackle their individual gags with relish but without
coDstant inversion of roles (e.g., hunter and hunted) have a circular energy that much conviction about the value of the project as a whole. Looking closely at
can go on like a perpetual motion machine. Gags can be endlessly repeated and some ofAvery's cartoons with Bergson in mind might help us understand Avery's
tragicomic, almost nihilistic, world.
varied, roles constantly reversed. The gag can take on a life of its own, studiously
iiunconcerned with character or plot. And as Bergson argues, what's fr-rnny
Born Frederick Bean Avery in l9o8 in Taylor, Texas, "Tex" Avery graduated
always amounts to the intrusion of the mechanical into life-what makes us from North Dallas High School, where he enioyed drawing cartoons of school
laugh, in other words, is the recognition of, say, mechanical rigidity or thingness actiyities for the yearbook.s He hoped to sell a comic strip but had no luck in
in humans-then this very tendcncy toward the mechanical is part ofthe soul of
comedy but also carries with it the threat of tedium. Dallas, Chicago, or eventually Los Angeles, where he migrated in the late 19zos.

llergson does not deal with failed comedl He does not discuss why something ln r93o he got a job as an inker and painter at Charles Mintz Studios, then at
that tries to be funny is aot funny. In fact, no one who writes about Avery dwells Walter Lantz Studios, where he moved up to become an animator's assistant. At
on his sometimes listlcss stabs at humor, For good reasonr tryinS to explain Lantz, Avery found the opportunity to direct; he also found his wife, an inker
why one cartoon is funny and another isn't ls rather futile. Nevertheless, Avery named Patricia Johnson. It was also at Lantz Studios that he lost his left eye as
cartoons lcnd themselves especially well to what we might call a "Bergsonian" the result of an office gag gone awry. In mid-r935 Avery left Lantz for Warner
analysis. On one hand, if we want to understand the thin line between comedy Bros. Along with fellow team members Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett, Avery
and boredom, Bergson's theory of laughter is an excellent starting point. On the changed the pace and style of humor in Warner Bros. cartoons. He created
other hand, if wc want a great example of the constitutive relationship between
humor and tedium, we need look no further than a typical lex Avery cartoon. Daffy Duck, and his versions of Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny became dennitive.
What critics have recognized as Avery's tendency toward monotony hints not
only at a "mechanical" approach to the task but also points toward something Avery made more than sixty frlms in his six years at Warner Bros., before
deeper and sadder. We sec this in a number ofplaces. First, we have the cartoons moving to MGM in September 194r. The animation historian John Canemaker
themselves, which are structured in such a way that they are almost perfect makes this assessment: "There, at Hollywoodi grandest and wealthiest studio,
examples of Bergson's ideas about cornedy and the mechanical. Second, Avery's
cartoons constantly reference the monotonous yet intermittently funny process he reached his apogee as a director by intensifying the pacing and exaggeration
of image production during the era of classical l{ollywood studio animation. of the cartoons and elaborating on themes, character types, and humor that
Irrom these rcferences we can almost see Avery coming to grips with the grind
and glee of his art form. Finally, we have Avery's biography, which is a tale of he first explored at Warners."6 Avery worked there in the division opposite
perfectionism, obsession, frustration, and dcspair about the drudgery of studio William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who made MGM's Tom and Jerry car-
animation and also, perhaps, about the meaninglessness of it all. toons, until19t4, when MGM shut down Avery's animation unit. He then vr'ent
back to Lantz Studios for a year, making only four cartoons, and eventually
Bergsont thesis on comedy is not the only one out there, ofcourse, and it may
seem rather perverse to think of Avery's cartoons in light of a theory oflaughter settled at Cascade, a small Hollywood studio where he directed animated tele-
written in l9oo. But there is something about each that resonates with the other. vision commercials in relative obscurity for twenty years. In the last three years
Avery's cartoons are certainly very funny, yet, taken as a whole, there is also ofhis life he worked for his former rivals at Hanna-Barbera Studios; he died in
something sad about them. The very thing that sets tbem apart from standard 1980. This chapter will focus on his MGM period, arguably the richest vein in a
mother lode ofcomedy.
studio animation the frenetic accumulation ofgag after gag-also reveals their
dependence on inherently mechanical comic structures. Ultimately, I want to Let me begin with a typical Avery cartoon. Droopy's Double Trouble $95r) 1s
explain how Avery cartoons can be very, very funny and yet very sad or even
boring at the same time. They are undoubtedly exuberant-no one who has seen not one of his best, but it's not one of his worst, either. It! the eleventh Droopy
the Wolf's rcactions in Red Hot Ridiag Hood (1943) could say otherwise. But we
must also admit that there is something slightly cold and mechanical about these cartoon out of a total ofsixteen over twelve years; Droopy was probably Avery's
best-known character (other than Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, ofcourse), the one
that had the best chance for the brand-name recognition that Tom and Jerry or
the Warner Bros. characters enjoyed. While Droopy was undoubtedly popular,
he didn't catch 6re and sweep lhe nation in the same way that Mickey Mouse,

SCOTT CURTIS ' lvtnv's pRlsoN HousE oF,a.NrMATroN

Bugs Bunnl or even Tom and ]erry did. Avery's inability to create a truly mer- must do to protect himself from Spike's cruelty is ring a bell, arter which the
chandisable character was something of a frustration for the cartoonist; he tried eponymous black cat will walk in front of Spike and something will automati-
a number of different characters during his years at MGM, but his particular cally fall out of the sky onto Spiket head. The rest of the cartoon is a series of
comic approach was more gag-oriented than character-oriented.? Of all his MGM escalating gags repeating the same action with variations.

characters, Droopy hung around the longest. In other Avery cartoons, such as Horn esteader Drooly (t954), which is set in
Droopy, of course, is a comically unimposing, overweight little bloodhound the Old West, or One Cab's Famibt 6912), about a family of anthropomorphic
taxicabs, or Tfte Sfioo tingofDan McGoo (r945), based on Robert Service's famous
with the sad-sack voice of Wallace Whimple from the Fibber McGee and Molly poem,r0 the sefliag is stable and the gags vary. The different gags are based on the
radio show.3 Often pitted against the treacherous bulldog Spike or the opportu-
nistic Wolf, Droopy carries out his task unruffled by the various plots they mount lf6lmmaker's and audiencet shared knowledge of the setting and its clichds.
against him or by their wildly frantic reactions as their plans backfire. Droopy
is, as Adamson so eloquently put it, "an irnperturbable semicolon surrounded taxis could have children, for example, whatjokes would that setting or situation
by exclamation points."' In Droopy's Double Trouble the head butler, Theeves, create? This is not to say that action variations like those described above cannot
has left sr:b-butler Droopy in charge of the mansion: "While I'm away with the find their way into a setting dominated cartoon, or vice versa.ln The Shooting
master, you'll need a bit of help around the house. Locate a reliable person and of Dan McGoo, for example, the sultry singer from Red Hot Riding Hood pnts on
have him report to me for instructions," Theeves says. This gives Droopy the
opportunity to hire his twin brother, Drippy, who apparently just hangs out at a show, and the same repeated action that we saw in that 6lm-the Wolf react-
the gym all day. "That's my brother. He's strong," Droopy says to the audience ing to her wildly and with much fanfare-takes up a couple of minutes of the
as Drippy gratuitously punches holes in the fronl door. Theeves offers only this cartoon. Still, this repeated gag is not the motivating stt\tclule of The Shooting
instruction lo Drippy: "No strangers are permitted on the premises." Meanwhiie, of Dan McGoo. Instead, the structure hinges primarily on a series of different
Spike (sporting his best Victor Mclaglen Irish brogue) plays a bum who has gags deriving from the setting or situation, in this case, the retelling of the
befriended Droopy for the handouts Droopy kindly offers. Running to the back Service poem. In Dan McGoo the gags range from what lohn Canemaker calls
door to meet Droopy in the kitchen, Spike is astonished by the welcorne Drippy "literalizations"ll-literal visualizations of a colloquialism, such as "Drinks are
gives him: a powerful punch that sends him flying into a harnmock, which in
turn sends him slamming back into the door. Drippy exits and Droopy now on the house, boys," and everybody rushes to the roof for a drink to reaction
opens the door to find dazed and bruised Spike waiting. He brings him in, seLs
him at the table, and starts to feed him but exits to get something, leaving the way gags to "metagags" that comment on the action (a sign in a rowdy bar reads,
open for Drippy to follow orders once again, Spike never recognizing that Dnppy
and Droopy arc two different hounds. "Loud, isn't it?").u

This situation sets up the gags that follow; unbeknownst to Droopy or Spike, Generally speaking, then, there are two common patterns in Avery's MGM
Drippy switches places with Droopy in order to carry out his orders and clobber cartoons: a comic structure that revolves around a repeated gag wirh variations
Spike in a variety of ways, then rccedes once again. The basic gag is always the
samei the interest lies in the way in which the clobbering is administered and how and a comic structure that creates different kinds ofgags out of a single setting or
Spike reacts. This is one of two basic comic structures in Avery cartoons of the situation. These options are not exclusive, and they can be combined. Screwball
MGM era. Both structures follow a "variations on a theme" pattern. In Droopy's Squirrel bg++), for instance, appears to alternate gags that derive from a setting
Double Trouble and others, after thc initial setup the samc gag is repeated over or situation (the chase) with variations on a single kind ofgag, the metagag. But
and over wifh variations on the same action. Rock-a-Bye Bear (t952)
another example: Spike is hired to keep things quiel for a cranky hibernating even if cartoons often combine structures, usually they tend to lean one way
bear. He can't make any noise, or he'il be frred. His rival wants his job and so
tries to make him squeak by inflicting pain, but Spike holds in his cry of pain, or the other. Close examination of Sctewball Squirrel, for example, reveals that
runs outside to the top of a hill, and lcts go with a yelp. Repeat. An even better nearly all the gags are variations of the single-gag option-that is, almost every
example rs Bad Luck Blackie $949), a masterpiece of this genre: all a little kitten gag is a metagag, a commentary on the conventions or process of animation,
from the famous "skipping-phonograph-creates-a-skipping-image" gag to the
more subtle use of the frame line as a way of restricting and revealing point of
view (I wili discuss this gag in more depth later in the chapter).

The main point here, however, is that this two-option pattern exPlains and
emphasizes the importance of repetition for the typical Avery cartoon. Things
happen over and over again in Avery's world. In individual cartoons gag struc'
tures are repeated, and settings and stories are repeated across cartoons. Indi-
vidual gags are never repeated within cartoons, but they often recur in different


cartoons. In Setol Dtoopy i94q *teWoIf guides a charging bull into a cellar and (1896) or Creatiw Evolution $9o7), wlll recognize his interest in vitalism in this
closes the door, then folds the door into ever smaller units until it is the size ofa
matchbook. He then tosses the item away, at which point it unfolds and the bull essay on laughter:

charges out again. The same gag appears ur Droopy (rqS+). Some- Life presents itself to us as evolution in time and complexity in space. Regarded
times even footage is repeated: the live action footage in Ty of Tomorroi) (1953) is in time, it is the continuous evolution ofa being ever growing olderj it never goes
used again in Avery's very next cartoon, The Three Little Pups (r953). Sometimes backward and never repeats itself. Considered in space, it exhibits certain coexist,
whole stories are rep eated: Little Johnny Jet (r953) is exactly the same story as One ing elements so closely interdependent, so exclusively made for each othet that
Cab\ Family Q95z); only the type of family (taxicabs, airplanes) has changed. At not one ofthem could, at the same time, belong to two different organismsi each
the level ofstyle certain devices are aiways at Avery's disposal, such as the frame- living being is a closed system ofphenomena, incapable ofinterfering with other
line trick I noted above (the camera "pans" to reveal someone who has appeared systems. A continual change ofaspect, the irreversibility ofthe order ofphenom-
just outside ofthe frane)- Characters, stories, gags, setups, openings, endings, ena, the perfect individuality of a perfectly self-contained series: such, then, are
reactions, backgrounds, voices, sound effects, musical cues, stylistic techniques- the outward characteristics whethe! real or apparent is oflittle moment-which
everything in Avery's arsenal is reused at some point. distinguish the living from the merely m€chanical. (118)

AVERY MEETS BERGSON Given this definition of "life"-continuous change, irreversibility, individual
uniqueness-it is not too dimcult to guess what Bergson ascribes to "the merely
I am not criticizing Avery's work. This kind of recycling is fairly typical in mechanical": repetition, invecion, and what he calls the "reciprocal interference
the animation industry and in comedy in general. Cartoon backgrounds, for of series" (n8). Each of these, as it turns out, is a common comic device that
Bergson recognizes in French theatrical comedy but that we can also see in Avery
example, are often repeated to save time and money. And as Donald Crafton
writes about silent frlm comedy, "Slapstick cinema seems to be ruled by the prin- cartoons.
ciple ofaccretion: gags, situations, costumes, characters and camera technrques
Let us examine Droopy's Double Trouble in light of Bergson's ideas. First,
are rehearsed and recycied in film after film.... Nothing was discarded in
Bergson counts as mechanical notjust processes, such as repetition, but also cer-
slapstick."13 lndeed, perhaps more than brevity, repetition is the soul ofcomedy. tain characteristics, such as rigidity or inelasticity. But it seems counterintuitive
This is the thesis of Bergson's treatise on comedy, Laughter. As I noted earlier, to call a Tex Avery cartoon, especially, "inelastic"; cartoon characters are nothing
Bergson argues that what we find funny is basicaliy the intersection of the
human and the mechanical. When someone does something funny, Bergson if not elastic. For example, when Droopy introduces his extra strong brother
maintains, we can find something machinelike in those actions: "The attitudes,
gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion Drippy to Theeves the butler, Drippy shakes his hand and painfully renders it a
as that body reminds us of a mere machine" (79). A comic body is machinelike, stretched out, springy mess-a predictable cartoon gag that takes advantage of
according to Bergson, not oniy for its movements but also for its qualities: the ability ofdrawn animation to stretch objects beyond their "realistic" dimen-
it becomes something that is not fluid and adaptable but rigid, inelastic, and sions (Fig. rr.1). But Bergson would argue that it is not the stretchiness of the
hand that makes it funny; the elasticity ofthe hand is secondary to what Bergson
objectlike. It is the superimposition of these qualities on more fiexible, mal- would count as the primary comic quality: its "thingness." That is, Drippy turns
Ieable, "human" qualities that creates humor and laughter: 'Any arrangement Theeves's hand lnlo an object, and this is what strikes us as funny (or at least
ofacts and events is comic which gives us, in a single combination, the illusion what Avery assumed would be funny). In fact, the elasticity of cartoon bodies
of life and the distinct impression of a mechanical arrangement" (ro5). Hence invariably indicates the thingness ofthose bodies; it is precisely because they can
repetilion, to the extent that it reminds us of the automatic functioning of the stretch that they fall under Bergson's category of "the mechanical." Silly putty
stretches; hands or dogs or ducks do not.
machine, is comic when it pertains to human action. "Wherever there is repeti-
tion or complete similarity, we always suspect some mechanism at work behind We must therefore think of"rigidity" in broader terms. Even though cartoon
the iiving . . . in a word, of some manufacturing process or other. This deflection characters stretch, the source of the amusement comes from the imposition of
of life towards the mechanical is here the real cause of laughter" (82). Those "mechanical," "rigid," or "ob.jectlike" qualities which includes, in this case, the
familiar with Bergson's other philosophical works, such as Mctter and Memory ability to stretch-onto human or anthropomorphic characters. The same holds
for live-action comedy. lfsomeone makes a funny face, according to Bergson, it
is funny because it "will make us think ofsomething rigid" (26). Even though the


FrcuRr rr. r. Drippy turns'Ihe€ves's hand into an object in "ln one sense it might be said that all character is comic' provided we mean by
Droopy's Double Trouble (MCM, rpsr). character the ready-made element in our personality, that mechanical element
which resembles a piece of clockwork wound up once and for all and capable of
funniest face might require extraordinary flexibility ofthe muscles, what's fun ny working automatically. . . . It is comic to wander out ofone's own self lt is comic
about it is the sense that "the person! whole moral life has crystallized into this to fali into a ready-made category. And what is most comic of all is to become a
particular cast offeatures" (76). The funnyface becomes a zask that does not hide category oneself into which others will fall, as into a ready-made frame; it is to
but instead reveals one aspect and holds it, maintains it, and presents it as a Per- crystallize into a stock character" (156-57) In Avery's cartoons' at least, we con-
manent and dominant feature of that personality. Like a caricature a funny face stantly encounte! this "ready-made," "autoi\atic," mechartical asPect ofcharacter'
brings out and reduces the personality to a single feature; the normally mobile To summarize: "'Ihe comic is that side of a person which reveals his likeness to
and fluid quality of the face or personality becomes static. This is the "riSidity" a thing, that asPect of human events which, through its Peculiar inelasticity'
or "mechanical inelasticity" to which Bergson refers. This rigidity also apPlies to conveys the imPression ofpure mechanism, of automatism, ofmovement without
personality itself. Single-mindedness, the inability to adapt flexibly to changing
circumstances, can be very funny, for example. Drippy's function in the cartoon life" (uz).
is to carry oul his instructions without question or doubt, and this makes him So "automatism" aPPlies to both chalacter and Process. Repetition, as we have
a comic character- Spike, too, pursues his goai without regard to consequence,
even though most would be on their way after the frrst Punch. Droopy also has a seen, is a part ofthe comic rePertoire that haPPens to evoke the automatic qual-
comic function: he is not allowed to notice the events going on behind his back. ity of machines. Even if the action is constantly repeated, even if we know that
Absentmindcdness, then, is another comic characteristic because it implies an
automatic q\)ality to the action. The absentminded character is on "autoPilot," so itt coming, we laugh. Why? "Because I now have before me a machine that

to speak, or more precisely, is unconscious ofhim or herself. This brings out the works automatically. This is no longer life, it is automatism established in life
and imitating it" (8r). Similad Bergson names another comic ptocess: inl)ersion'
"mechanical" aspect ofthe character, which is the source ofthe comic. With his Take, for example, the inversion of roles one might find in any given cartoon
stress on "automatic" qualities, Bergson pursues a distinctly modern definition Screwy Squirrel and the dog may perfunctorily take on the roles ofhunted and
of comedy that emphasizes the tension (and reciprocity) between the human
and the mechanical. We may disagree with the historically contingent nature hunter, but these positions are inverted throughout the cartoon: Screwy, always
of this deinition, but it rings true when we think of modern comic chatacters: in charge, allows himself to be hunted for the sake of the Plot, while the dog
often irwoluntarily surrenders his tyPical role of hunter' Back and forth they go,

and these turnarounds ate a source of humor in lhe cartoon Such inversions

imply a reversibility and interchangeability that is both mechanical and comic'
But the concept of inversion can also explain more subtle reversals in the Avery
universe, such as the metagag Why are metagags funny? Some argue that such
gags rely on a "comic distancing" effect that reminds the viewer ofthe process of
production and thus provokes laughter' Place-Verghnes writes' "When watching
a cartoon, we have an imPression of reality because we accept its codes from the
start. However, ifthe said codes are questioned and ifthe'set ofstrings'is uncov-
ered, the efiect is comical.'fex Avery uses various means to lay the structure of
the cartoon bare, the leitmotiv clearly being: 'never forget you are watching a
cartoon."'14 So, according to this argument, the metagag is a comic reminder that
we are watching a cartoon, as if we forgot, and the reminder provokes surprise
and laughter. But explaining laughter in terms of "surPrise" or "distancing" or
"incongruity" is insuficient, since these could equally apply to any number of
cases that do not provoke laughter at all. Thinking about it in Bergsonian terms,

we could argue instead that the metagag is an inversion of diegetic Lnd nondiegetic


For example, in order to evade Meathead the dogin Scrcv/ball Squitrel, Screwy

scoirT cuRTrs ,ltx Lvsnv's pRIsoN HousE oF ANIMATToN

ducks into a hole in a tree and reemerges through another hole above it. Meathead device: absentmindedness and point ofview- SPike must be so inattentive that he
is in hot pursuit, but at the last second Screwy reaches down and actually motes does not notice the switch of Droopy for Drippy. The audience sees this switch,
the fLrst hole up so that the dog slams into solid wood (not quite solid, since it however, so our point ofview creatcs a new interpretation ofevents. So we could
takes on the shape of his head). What's going on here? How can there be one set simplify to say that there are only two series: the events as the p(otagonist (Spike)
of laws in which a hole is movable and another in which the tree is solid? Both imagines them and the events as the audience actually sees them. As Nodi Carroll
can exist at the same time in animation, but what makes this a gag (and not explains with regard to similar silent film gags, "The actual situation or event
science 6ction) is that the laws do l1ot exist at the same time. Instead, there is a interferes with the protagonist! imagined picture ofthe event, with the net efect
momentary inversion ofthe two sets oflaws, one pertaining to a iictional world
of squirrels and dogs and trees, another pertaining to the nondiegetic world of that the protagonist's expectations have been reversed."16 Spike's expectation is
animators. That is, there is one set oflaws that apply to a "normal" fictional space that Droopy will be kind to him, but we see the switch and expect the disaster
(as in Iive action) and another that dcrives from the endless possibilities ofdrawn that foilows. Spike's limited knowledge of the events leads to his confusion and
animation. This inversion implies their equivalence and reversibility; the role eventual madness-at the end ofthe 6lm he is carted away by an ambulance as a
of cartoon character and that of animator can be inverted at any moment. We "mad dog," having been driven insane by DrooPy's apParently biPolar behavior.
may be surprised and pleased at the gag, but surprise is not the comic element; This collision of imagined versus actual events is what Bergson means by the
instead, the comic element is, again, the transposition ofhuman (animator) and
mechanical (cartoon). We see this inversion of cartoon and animator again and "reciprocal interference of series."
again in Avery's world: a visible line between color and black-and-white reads With this particular device, absentmindedness is used to restrict Point ofview.
"Technicolor ends herc" (Lucky Ducky, r948), or a voracious goat literally chews
up the scenery (Billl Boy, 1954),ln each case the gag depends on an inversion of The gag doesn't work if Spike sees everything the audience sees; staging the
one set of rules for another. It is also noteworthy that this inversion is often tied
to character. Some have argued that there are no consistent laws of physics for switch so that it escapes his attention is an easy way to ensure that he doesn't.
an Avery cartoon, nothing denning the difference between real and unreal; the Avery has another device that restricts Point ofview in the same way-what I will
laws seem to be di{ferent for hunler and huntcd, rascal and victim.'s But that is call "the frame-line reveal." The first Droopy catloon, Dumb-Hounded (r94),has
precisely the point: lhe laws are difl'erent for each character. What we might call many exarnples ofthis technique. In this cartoon the Wolf is an escaped prisoner
good luck or good karma or good timing in thc real world is codified in comedy trying to elude Droopy, who slowly but surely tracks him down. The Wolf (and
according to character. Buster Keaton gags, for example, often revolve around the audience) thinks he has left Droopy long behind as he races up the stairs to
Keaton's uncanny ability to escape harm: recall the famous Steamboat Bill, lr. an apartment. He enters the apartment and closes the door. He turns screen right
(1928) gag in which a falling facade of a house appears about to crush him; only and the camera pans right as he walks. Suddenly, the pan reveals DrooPy to have
appeared out ofnowhere (Fig. r1.2).'7 In this gag the frame line acts as a Iimit for
he occupies the one spot where an open window allows hin to stand unscathed. both the Wolf and the audience. There is an even bolder example ln Screwball
Nature works diflerently for some. The same principle applies in animation, Squirrel. Meathead, the dog, has chased Screwy up a tree. In a medium two-shot
Meathead backs Screwy onto a branch. Screwy backs out of frame right, leaving
except that there are two distinct laws ofphysics at play and some characters have Meathead alone in the frame. Meathead proceeds forward, the camera tracking
access to both. slowly to follow, he suddenly registers surprise and the camera pans quickly right
to reveal a sign at the end ofthe branch: "Sucker!" Even though Meathead should
There is one last Bergsonian comic device to explore before we move onr the be able to see beyond the frame-if this were a live'action fllm-he does not; the
"reciprocal interference ofseries."'lhis is a series ofevents Lhat can be interpreted frame almost forces his inattentiveness. It functions the same way for the audi-
in different, somelimes mutually exclusive, ways, depending on the point ofview. ence: we cannot see beyond the frame either, so the "reveal" inverts our inter-
pretation of the events, which we share with Meathead. So this technique shares
ln Droopy's Double Trouble we could say that there are at lcast three series or some features with the "reciprocal interference ofseries" device in that it relies on
three interpretations of the cvcnts: Droopy sees a bum who needs a handout,
restricted point ofview and reversed expectations. This could also be considered
Drippy sees an intruder who needs to be expelled, and Spike sees a single Droopy a metagag, since we have a similar inversion ofdiegetic rules (he should be able to
who is aiternately gracious and vicious. Then there is the actual series of events see beyond the frame) for nondiegetic rules (in drawn animalion, nothing really
that the audicnce sees: there are twin Droopys. The comedy comes from the exists beyond the frame until it is created by the animator). It is indeed a versatile
collision of these series, resulting in mishap for Spike. There are two keys to this gag, and Avery used it liberally.


!tcu RE rr,2. The "frame line reveal" in intricate division of labor among directors, head animators, character anima-
D u m b - H ou nd ed (MGM, t9 4t. tors, in-betweeners, backgrounders, inkers, and Lven with all these
THI.] PRISON HOUSE OF ANIMATION people working on a single cartoon, the frlm would go through various stages,
from initial storyboard to exposure sh€ets to pencil tests to final film. So the
Bergson's theory of laughter is useful because it emphasizes comic devices tally ofeight thousand to ten thousand images required for a 6nished film does
"that consist in looking upon life as a repeating mechanism, with reversible not count all the storyboards and drafts and tests. Any way we look at it, that's
a lol of images-generating images, one after the other, is a constant feature of
action and interchangeable parts" (r26). Comedy, in other words, can be a very the job. There are positive aspects of this division of labor, as Adamson notes:
mechanical business. No onc would know this better than a studio animator. A "Though the final result seems to be the reduction of the animator to one soli-
typical cartoon could require up to ten thousand drawings. Studio animation tary post on an assembly line, the intended and usually effected outcome was
units were designed to makc this work as efficiently as possible by creating an to allow the creative aspect ofanimation to be separated from the mountainous
drudgery."r'Indeed, Avery recognized early that he would not have been able
to take on th€ job of animator: "They lanimators] get new scenes all the time,
but it's a monotonous thing, in a way. I couldn't do that for twenty-five years.
I'd get tired ofit. But I never got tired ofdirecting cartoons. It was always a ncw


Nevertheless, even as a director Avery could not escape the daily grind.
Coworkers remarked on his legendary perfectionism and his inability or unwill-
ingness to delegate. One Warner Bros. story man, Michael Maltese, says in an

Tex is a hard man to work fort he's a perfectionist to this point: that even when
he's ready to turn out a good cartoon, it's still not as good as he wanted to make it.
Another director will say, 'All right, it came out great. That's frne. I'lltake my bows,
and next time we'll see what else we can do-" I think nobody worried and suffered
to make a great cartoon more than Avery did. It was never good enough for him. I
told him, "You proved yourself alreadl" but he'd think, "No, it's got to be better."
And he worried himself to the point where it got to be too diflicult for him.'zl

Likewise, the MGM story man Heck Allen recalls, "Tex never had anybody. He
laid the pictures out for the goddam background man; he did everything for the
so-called character man, who draws the models of the character. Tex did it all,
the guy iust cleaned up after him."" The pressure to produce images, along with
the self imposed pressure to produce perfect cartoons, even forced Avery to take
a year offbetween 195z and r953:

Oh, I got too wrapped up in my work. I tried to do everything myself. Normally
a director will rough the scenes out and time them, and then check over the com-
pleted scenes and make changes for the boys. But I attempted to put so much on
paper, the way I saw it and the way 1 wanted it, pinning it right down to the frame,

that it required a lot of work Saturdays, Sundays-to keep up to schedule. I was

doing all the technical stuff: pans, and gctting a character in a certain spot at a
certain time. I enjoyed it, but it got too rough for me.r3


There were other pressuies as well. Canemaker paints a darker picture ofAveryt runs. Droopy rs allaqys therc. So both films are, structurally speaking, exam
career than we normally see in portraits of him. His vision of his films clashed ples of Avery's single-gag formula. Variations come from the Wolf's reactions,
with that of the Production Code Administration, so "he spent considerable the lengths he goes to escape, the way Droopy is revealed, and the occasional
time and efort thinking ofways to avoid offending" that office.ra His producer metagag. Northwest Hounded. Policebegins at a version ofAlcatraz called'Alka-
at MGM, Fred Quimby, was a humorless ex-salesman who didn't understand Fizz Prison," where "No Noose Is Good Noose." The Wolf is in his cell when he
most of Averyt gags. And Quimby seemed to favor Avery's rivals, Hanna and produces an extra-large pencil and draws a crude door on the wall outside his
Barbera, which was another source of iuitation and insecurity.25 Heading this c€ll, Drawing is power: the Wolf opens the door and starts his ingenious escape
list of frustrations is the incident at Lantz Studios: an ofltce gag with a flying to Canada. At Mounty County Police Headquarters, where "We Aim to Police,"
paper clip cost Avery his left eye and his confidence. Canemaker concludes from Droopy (as Sgt. McPoodle) is volunteered to track down this vicious criminal. As
the Wolf runs across the Yukon territory, he finds a series ofBurma Shave srgns:
interviews that Avery changed after this event and "became less expansive, more
Don't Look Now
closed, and focused on the insular world he was creating in animation."r6 But Use Your Noodle
even this world had its limitations, and Avery grew increasingly unhappy with You're Being Followed
his own gag formulas. A fellow MGM animator, Michael Lah, recalls Avery's sad by Sgt. McPoodle.
assessment: "l've done it all a hundred different ways. I'm burned out. I just don't
The Wolf looks and the camera pans leli to find McPoodle on his little blue horse.
th in k Ihe sl uff is fun ny a nymore.", Thus begins the gag, which consists ofvariations on the frame-line reveal. The
Burma-Shave jingle hints at the cartoon's themes of invisibility/visibility ("Don't
The year of helped, but the MGM cartoons from 1953 to 1955 are not Avery's Look Now") and omnipresence ("You're Being Followed"). The Wolf runs, but he
can't hide.
best work. There are some inspired moments-Deputy Droopl (r9t5) takes the
central gag of Rock a Bye Bear to sublime heights-but generally, they lack the The Wolf runs immediately to a cabin and shuts the front door and another
earlier spark. Averyt fatigue is most evident in his last MGM cartoon (which,
admlttedly, he codirected with Michael Lah), Cellbound (i955). in this film an on top ofthat, and another, and another . . . (there are eight in all), just to be extm
inmate takes twenty years (from r934 to r954, approximately the number ofyears sure. Frame iine reveal right-Droopy is in a chair by the fire, reading the com-
Avery spent in the studio system) to dig himself out of prison by the spoonful. ics. Reaction, then reopening each ofthe doors to reveal Droopy again. Reaction,
Once he escapes, twists and turns of the piot find him inside a television set bust through the back door, open it, Droopy there again. Reaction, escape to
destined for the warden's home, where he most now improvise and impersonate a bird's nest at the top of the highest mountain*"He'll never find me here"
various TV shows ifhe is to remain undetected. It is an uninspired cartoon, full Droopy cracks out of the egg. Reaction, dive to a lake below-Droopy is in a pass-
of lame gags and leaden timing, but its narrative movement from one prrson ing school of fish. And so on. Sometimes the reaction comes before the reveal,
to another is remarkabiy prescient of Avery's career. Even in the earlier films, sometimes after, but even though the audience can always expect the reveal,
however, the usual exuberance is sometimes tinged wilh boredom and desparr. Avery plays with expectations. At one point, the Wolf finds himself on a tiny atoll
in the middle ofthe ocean. Flanked by two rocks, the Wolf, like the audience, has
Avery's MGM cartoons, it seems, speak to the Bergsonian tension between by now caught on: "Yeah, I know. He'll probably be right under that rock." But
no, Droopy appears under the othet smaller rock. This reduces the Wolf to tears
automatism and spontaneity in comedy. That is, the energy of even the best Avery offrustration and copious self-flagellation before he swims to New York and runs
cartoons is often balanced by sly asides about or rehearsals ofthe drudgery ofstu- into a movie theater (in a nice metagag he takes a turn too quickly and nearly
dio animation. The liberating power ofdrawing cartoons for a living often 6nds runs off'the edge ofthe film). What's playing? An MGM cartoon, of course, and
itself cancelled by the capriciousness of fate and its swift reversals of fortune. Droopy says from the screen, "Hello, Joe." The Wolf finds a plastic surgeon, orrly
to receive Droopy's face. The doctor changes it back but is then revealed to have
Itt enough to drive anyone mad, as it does Spike in Droopy's Double Ttouble. Droopyt face himseli The Wolf decides to end it all by throwing himself to the
lions, but he even finds Droopy inside the belly ofthe beast. Finally, he mercifully
Sometimes, bemused resignation is the only option left. ends up back in prison. "Well, I'll be," he says matter of factly, "he finally got me.

To conclude,let ns look at another Droopy cattoon. Northwest HoundedPolice

(1946) best illustrates this ambivalence between novelty and repetition. lt is the
fourth Droopy cartoon, basically a remake of the fiist, Dumb Hounded.z8 BoIh
films feature Droopy implacably pursuing the Woil who has escaped from prison
(prison seems to be a theme in Avery's cartoons). The gag is that Droopy inex-
plicably shows up no matter how far or how quickly across the planet the Wolf


But there's just one thing that's bothering me. I wonder ifthere coulda been more 7. Ibid., tz.
than one of them little guys?" Quick pan right to reveal hundreds of Droopys 8. Bili Trompson (ler3-7, was the voice ofboth D.oopy and wallace whimple (and many other
saying, "What do you think, brother?" End, fade out. characrers on Fib&e/M.Gee and Malry).
g. Adamson,'l ex Arery, 13.
The moral is clear: the power of the pencil may appear to be liberating, but ro. Trie poem, "T,e Shooting of Dan Mccrew," is included in Service, songs of a Sourdough,
you reaily can't escape. Droopy's omnipresence could be read as an allegory for
the thousands ofdrawings ofhim that went into the making ofthis very cartoon. 5a-54.
He and the other characters were everywhere in the animators' lives- After draw
rL Canerr,aket, Tea Arery, \!9.
ing Droopy several hundred times in a day, even going to a movie might not e. The term netagag \s first used wjth rega rd to Avery ca rtoons i n Scheib, "Tex Arcara."

provide the escape one hoped for. The frnal shot ofhundreds ofDroopys is only 13. See Crafton, "Pie and Chase, roT (Karnick and lenkins edn.).
a logical literalization ofthe truth that the Wolf discovers but that studio anima
tors already recognized: the number and ubiquity of images is mind-boggling ra. PLace Ve.ghnes, ?er,\ret, rr7. Ronnie Scheib makes a similar argumenl.
and inescapable. The pencil, in this case, is a double-edged sword, a promise and
a curse. 15. PLlce-Verghnes, Tex,4very 169.
16. Carroll, Notes on the Sight cag," 30.
ln one sense, then, this is a very sad cartoon. It clearly indicates that the
v. I use track pan Ihroughour with the knowledge that such techniques ar€ sinulated !n
emancipatory potential oftalent or creativity is an illusion. Idealistic or romantic
notions of the creative power of authorship are eventually overwhelmed by the ^nd
sheer number of images one is lorced to produce as a studio animator. Making
one image after lhe other, over and over again, is a monotonous job, but there 18. Nol to mention wrilers, composers, producers, and others rvho did not actually draw images
are momenls ofinspiration and laughter. This is a theme in this cartoon, but this but were vital to the cartoon.
rhythm is rehearsed in its structure as well. Each gag is a brilliant variation on the
last, but one can't help but notice the essential sarreness of it all. The individuai ry. t\d^msan, Ter Arery, 22.
gag may be different, but the rhythm and structure of the gag are the same as 20. Quoted in ibid., rr7.
all the others. Yet we laugh. Sornehow this cartoon rides that thin line between 21. Quoted in ibid., 13a 15.
spontaneity and boredom.'ftis is the line that studio animators walked every 22. Quoted in ibid., rar.
day: How do you maintain a sense ofimprovisation in a cartoon that is built out 23. Quoted in ibid., r8o 8r.
of thousands of drawings and dozens of tests? How do you keep iaughing in the 24. Canerr,?ket, Tex Avery, tt.
face ofdrudgery and setbacks? How do you separate what's funny fron mechani
cal, automatic repetition? The wonder of this and other Avery cartoons is that ,t. Ibid.
they do not try; instead, they reveal the mutual reliance ofhumor and repetition
and use it to great effect. But perhaps precisely because ofthis, Avery felt the teo ,6. Ibid., rl. This list ofpressures does not jnclude the tu.n for the worse that Avery's life took
sion between laughter and ennui most keenly ofall. after he left MGM, with the death ofhis son and the dissolution ofhis marriaSe.

NOTES 27. Mlchael Lah \nteryieN, Tex Arery, television documentary (Turner Broadcasting/Moon
dance, 1988); quoted in Canem ker, Tex A\/etf, t8.
1 Rosenbaum, "Drean lvlasters IL"
2. Place-Ve.ghnes, T€a Ay€r./, r39 28. Lnd Dunb Haunded reworks the central gag from an Avery Warner Bros. cartoon, Torfoir€
3. Adamsai, Tex Arer:jt, 27. Beats Hare A9 4t). ln that one, however, the 1rick " of CecrL Turtlet constant presence and duplica
4. See Bcrgson, largrie. 66jL; subscquent rcferences to rhis source are cited parenthetically in tion is "natural ized" by a plot device: he calls his family to help himwin the race against Bugs Bunny.

r. Th is biographicai ske tch is draw n from information in Adamson, Tsa Ayery; a nd Canema ker,

6. Canemaker T€.r Avery 16.

Click to View FlipBook Version